A new image from the Very Large Telescope in Chile shows what resembles a diamond ring in space.
The ring — which appears blue in the image above — is actually the ghostly outer remnant of a dead star. This field of gas, known as Abell 33, is so big that it would take light three years to pass from one side of it to the other.
A star’s glow comes from the fusion of densely packed atoms. Gravity holds this ball of atoms closely together. At the same time, those fusion reactions try to push the ball apart. The star lives in a sort of balance as long as there is enough fuel to keep gravity from making its ball of atoms collapse in on itself. And for the average sun-size star, those fusion reactions may sustain a star in glowing health for some 10 billion years.
But a star won’t live forever. Once most of its fuel has burned up, gravity will allow the star’s denser core to collapse, creating a far denser mix of its heavier elements. When this happens in small to medium-size stars, like our sun, there will be no explosive supernova fireworks. Instead, the star will lose hold of its outer, lighter constituents. Now freed, these gases can begin to slowly drift away as a gently expanding — and glowing — cloud. Astronomers refer to that cloud as a planetary nebula.
And that’s the blue bubble seen here. This nebula resides about 2,500 light-years away in the Hydra constellation.
The denser core of Abell 33’s former star contracted to create a white dwarf, an intensely hot and dense object. Some of the light glowing from it — invisible to the human eye — exists in the ultraviolet part of the electromagnetic spectrum. When this UV light hits oxygen ions in the surrounding planetary nebula, that halo will glow blue (as seen here).
What about the brilliant star in this “diamond-ring setting?” It appears to be perched on the edge of the nebula. It isn’t. That star is only about one-third as far from Earth as the nebula. Only because of a chance alignment do the two appear linked.
atom The basic unit of a chemical element. Atoms are made up of a dense nucleus that contains positively charged protons and neutrally charged neutrons. The nucleus is orbited by a cloud of negatively charged electrons.
constellation Patterns formed by prominent stars that lie close to each other in the night sky. Modern astronomers divide the sky into 88 constellations, 12 of which (known as the zodiac) lie along the sun’s path through the sky over the course of a year. Cancri, the original Greek name for the constellation Cancer, is one of those 12 zodiac constellations.
electromagnetic spectrum The range of radiation that spans from gamma- and X-rays through visible light and on to radio waves. Each type of radiation within the spectrum typically is classified by its wavelength.
fusion The merging of two things to form a new combined entity. (in physics) The process of forcing together the nuclei of atoms. This nuclear fusion is the phenomenon that powers the sun and other stars, producing heat and forging the creation of new, larger elements.
gravity The attraction between any two objects with mass. The more mass there is, the more gravity.
light-year The distance light travels in a year, about 9.48 trillion kilometers (almost 6 trillion miles). To get some idea of this length, imagine a rope long enough to wrap around the Earth. It would be a little over 40,000 kilometers (24,900 miles) long. Lay it out straight. Now lay another 236 more that are the same length, end-to-end, right after the first. The total distance they now span would equal one light-year.
ion An atom or molecule with an electric charge due to the loss or gain of one or more electrons.
planetary nebula A shell of gas ejected from stars like our sun at the end of their lifetimes. This gas continues to expand away from the remaining star (a white dwarf).
star Thebasic building block from which galaxies are made. Stars develop when gravity compacts clouds of gas. When they become dense enough to sustain nuclear-fusion reactions, stars will emit light and sometimes other forms of electromagnetic radiation. The sun is our closest star.
sun The star at the center of Earth’s solar system. It’s an average size star about 26,000 light-years from the center of the Milky Way galaxy.
supernova (plural: supernovae or supernovas) A massive star that suddenly increases greatly in brightness because of a catastrophic explosion that ejects most of its mass.
A rare but serious virus infection has emerged in the central United States, a team of doctors has just reported. The virus causes fever, a drop in the blood’s infection-fighting white cells and a reduction in the blood’s clot-making platelets. Called Heartland disease, its name honors the Heartland Regional Medical Center in St. Joseph, Mo. That’s where the first men infected with the virus were treated. To date, there have been eight confirmed cases.
Researchers outline how the mystery disease was discovered in the March 28 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. They also describe the potential impacts of the virus. Seven men became very sick with the disease but recovered. The eighth man died, the scientists report, although he had also been sick with other conditions.
The disease was first noticed in June 2009. That’s when two Missouri farmers came to the hospital with severe flu-like symptoms. They reported headaches, nausea, high fevers, diarrhea and gut-distress. And they were very, very tired. Blood tests showed the men had low white-blood-cell counts.
Both men reported they had been recently bitten by ticks. The first man said his wife used tweezers to remove a tick from the trunk of his body the day before his fever began. The second farmer had been “ticked” liberally. He told doctors he had averaged 20 tick bites a day for almost two weeks. His last tick bite had been about three days before his fever struck.
Ticks spread many diseases, so the doctors tested for common ones. Their tests didn’t turn up anything. The men were clearly quite sick, though. And they had lots of changes in their blood that indicated their bodies were fighting severe infections. Antibiotics failed to help. But that’s not surprising as it turns out that both men were infected with a virus. Viruses aren’t affected by antibiotics.
Local doctors alerted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Experts at this CDC found the virus — and confirmed it was a new one. The virus was also an unusual type, a phlebovirus (FLEE bo VI russ). Flies, mosquitoes and ticks tend to spread this kind of germ — but this type of virus had never been seen in the United States. So the Missouri patients had the first American phlebovirus disease. Laura McMullan of the CDC and her colleagues described the unusual germ in the Aug. 30, 2012,New England Journal of Medicine.
Although doctors suspected the virus came from the bite of an infected tick, they couldn’t be sure. So Harry Savage of the CDC in Fort Collins, Colo., and his colleagues stepped in.
They hunted ticks at 12 sites, including the farms belonging to the first two Missouri patients. In all, they collected 56,428 of the tiny animals. There were three different species of ticks in their collection. But only the Lone Star ticks (Amblyomma americanum), named for the bright yellow emblem on their backs, hosted any of the new virus. The Savage team reported its findings last July 22 in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.
As this work was going on, another six cases of Heartland disease were confirmed; five in Missouri and one in Tennessee. All the patients were men aged 50 or older (as the first farmers had been). Five recalled having tick bites in the days right before their symptoms developed. And all worked outdoors or engaged in frequent outdoorsy hobbies, such as gardening, hunting or hiking.
It took time, but seven of the infected men, including the two first diagnosed with the disease, eventually recovered.
“No vaccine or medication is available to prevent or treat Heartland virus disease,” notes Daniel Pastula of the CDC in Fort Collins and his team in their new report. So the only way to be protected from the disease is by preventing exposure to it. The CDC doctors recommend applying insect repellents when going into bushy or wooded grounds. They also suggest wearing long sleeves and pants — and checking for signs of ticks every time you come in from woodsy sites.
Google announced in January that it was developing a smart contact lens that could continually monitor blood glucose levels of Type 2 diabetics. It has been announced that Google is also working to create a contact lens with an integrated camera that would help people with visual disabilities.
The lens is meant to work like this: a small camera will be embedded out of the way of the pupil so it will not obstruct vision. Blinking activates the sensor for the camera. An advantage to using this lens instead of something like Google Glass is that the camera is able to follow the eye’s precise movement. Even the smallest sideways glance will still allow the camera to face the point of interest. The data collected by the camera can be processed to recognize a variety of properties including faces, motion, color, light, and certain objects.
If someone with a visual impairment is wearing the lenses and is, say, about to step off the curb while there is traffic present. The lens, which can be linked to a smartphone, will give an auditory warning for the wearer to stop, and then let the user know when it is safe to cross. The facial recognition could help the wearer identify friends and family by connecting to a database. There is also the potential for law enforcement to use the technology to spot persons of interest or those with outstanding warrants.
Of course, the lens isn’t only for those who need help visually navigating their surroundings. It will also be able to take regular pictures hands free. The developers also hope to be able to zoom the camera in, reducing the need for binoculars. While this does seem pretty handy in some circumstances, it seems fairly creepy for others. Keep your blinds closed, guys.
At this stage, the lens is still theoretical, but a patent application was filed on the design back in 2012. There is no telling when or if this product will be available on the open market.
University’s Work Already Has Contributed to 98 Percent Drop in Malaria Cases in Namibia
Applying Research to Malaria Elimination in Namibia
American teens are much less likely to engage in bullying than they were a decade ago, new research suggests.
Surveys completed by middle school and high school students between 1998 and 2010 suggest that instances of both verbal and physical bullying dropped by roughly half, with much of the decline seen specifically among boys.
Study author Jessamyn Perlus, a fellow in the division of intramural population health research with the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, described her team’s findings as “encouraging.”
“In recent years, there has been more attention to anti-bullying efforts, such as prevention programs, and responses to bullying have been incorporated into school policies,” Perlus noted. “We hope that these prevention efforts, and the additional attention and awareness of the problem of bullying, may be the reason for the decline.”
Perlus and her colleagues reported their results in the April 17 online edition of the American Journal of Public Health.
During the study period, four surveys were conducted among a nationally representative sample of students attending grades 6 through 10. Each survey included roughly 9,000 to 16,000 teens.
Those polled were asked to indicate how much they had engaged in bullying in school during the prior two months. Bullying was defined as involving two or more people of unequal strength or power, and included verbal teasing and insulting; excluding or ignoring peers; physical abuse; the spreading of false and negative rumors; and/or making sexual jokes.
Off-campus bullying — including cyber-bullying — was not covered by the survey. In addition, students were asked to indicate the frequency with which they carried a weapon, such as a gun or knife.
The researchers found that weapon-carrying did not fall off during the study period, and white students were actually slightly more likely to pack a weapon in 2010 than they had been in 1998.
However, fewer students said that they had been a victim of bullying in the same timeframe, with rates dropping from nearly 14 percent to just over 10 percent. That decrease was seen primarily among boys.
An even more dramatic drop was seen among those students who said they had instigated an act of bullying. That figure fell from nearly 17 percent in 1998 to below 8 percent by 2010.
Bullying rates varied, however, when broken down by different groups. For example, while bullying among white students fell by 64 percent in the study timeframe, it dropped only 30 percent among black students.
Younger students (in grades 6 through 8) also saw bigger declines than older students (in grades 9 and 10), the findings showed.
When looked at by gender, bullying remained more common among boys than girls, with one exception: In the 2010 poll, girls were found to engage in more social ostracizing than boys.
Name-calling and social ostracizing were found to be the most common types of bullying in general, and these also saw the sharpest decline over the years, according to the report.
“However, we suspect these bullying behaviors are different in an out-of-school context,” noted Perlus. “Particularly with technology that lends itself to cyber-bullying.”
Stephen Russell, director of the Frances McClelland Institute for Children, Youth, & Families at the University of Arizona in Tucson, agreed with Perlus that the findings were good news.
“It is encouraging to see that the public education policy attention to bullying may be slowly paying off,” he said.
Russell cautioned, however, that the study didn’t touch specifically on instances of bullying that are rooted in discrimination, a tricky aspect of social ostracizing that he said students are prone to justify as “just normal.”
“I’ve been advocating for inclusion of discrimination experiences [and] discriminatory bullying in large-scale surveys for a while now,” he said. “And that, along with inclusion of cyber-bullying, will be important to understand over time.”
SOURCES: Jessamyn Perlus, B.A., fellow, division of intramural population health research, Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, U.S. National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Md.; Stephen Russell, director, Frances McClelland Institute for Children, Youth, & Families, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, University of Arizona, Tucson; April 17, 2014, American Journal of Public Health, online
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is proposing long-awaited regulations governing the fast-growing electronic cigarette industry.
The new rules, made public Thursday, would give the FDA the authority to regulate e-cigarettes as tobacco products, placing them under the same requirements as cigarettes. That would include a ban on the sale to minors.
The new proposed regulations would also give the FDA oversight of numerous tobacco products that up to now have had no federal oversight. Those products include cigars, pipe tobacco, nicotine gels and waterpipe (or hookah) tobacco.
“Today, we’re taking another very important step toward the goal of a tobacco-free generation,” U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said during a Thursday afternoon news conference.
“We know the use of novel products like so-called e-cigs is on the rise, particularly among young people,” she added. “We don’t know yet the full impact and ramification these products have on our nation’s health. We don’t yet have a full understanding as to whether these products serve as a gateway to the use of regular cigarettes, and we don’t know how they influence the behavior of current smokers.”
The proposed regulations would require makers of “newly deemed” tobacco products such as e-cigarettes to:
- register with the FDA and report product and ingredient listings,
- only market new products after an FDA review,
- only make claims of reduced health risks if the FDA confirms that scientific evidence supports the claim and that marketing the product will benefit public health,
- not distribute free samples.
In addition, the proposal would require minimum age and identification restrictions to prevent sales to underage children; require health warnings; and prohibit sales through vending machines, unless they’re in a facility that never admits children.
“Tobacco remains the leading cause of death and disease in this country,” FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg said in an agency news release. “This is an important moment for consumer protection and a significant proposal that if finalized as written would bring FDA oversight to many new tobacco products. Science-based product regulation is a powerful form of consumer protection that can help reduce the public health burden of tobacco use on the American public, including youth.”
The FDA is basing its proposed regulations on the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which was signed by President Barack Obama in 2009 and gave the agency oversight of tobacco products.
The FDA said the public, the electronic cigarette industry and others will have 75 days to comment on the proposed regulations. Then the agency will review those comments before issuing a final rule.
E-cigarettes are battery-operated devices that turn nicotine, flavorings and other chemicals into a vapor that can be inhaled. Most are designed to look like a tobacco cigarette, but some look like pens, USB drives or other everyday objects.
The devices are advertised on TV and the Internet, and come in sweet flavors like green apple, watermelon and bubble gum.
Erika Sward, the American Lung Association’s assistant vice president for national advocacy, applauded the FDA’s proposal.
“It would give FDA authority over all unregulated tobacco products,” she said. “That would be e-cigarettes, but it also would be cigars, little cigars, hookah-type tobacco and any other products that aren’t currently under the FDA’s authority now.”
Such regulations would close a huge loophole that allows children to freely purchase e-cigarettes and little cigars in many parts of the country, according to proponents of stricter regulations.
E-cigarette use more than doubled among middle and high school students from 2011 to 2012, with more than 1.78 million students nationwide inhaling nicotine-laced vapor from the devices, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last year.
“What’s concerning is that high rate of rise,” said Dr. Hilary Tindle, assistant professor of medicine and director of the tobacco treatment service at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “Who knows where it will be next year, or the year after that? Everyone agrees that’s not a good thing. The least amount of regulation has to close that hole, so children can’t get access to them as easily.”
The drive for regulation is also being fueled by a dramatic increase in the number of calls to poison centers involving nicotine poisonings from e-cigarettes, according to federal health officials.
Calls related to poisoning from the liquid nicotine in the devices rose from about one a month in 2010 to 215 in February this year, the CDC reported in April.
Electronic cigarettes may be safer than conventional tobacco cigarettes, in that people don’t have to inhale harmful smoke. But without regulation, it’s impossible to know what people are inhaling when they use an e-cigarette, Tindle said.
“There are so many manufacturers right now making e-cigarettes, and there have been multiple reports of contaminants in the vapor and in the e-liquids,” she said. “People don’t necessarily know what they are getting in their bodies, based on the label.”
The new regulations would end the “Wild West” nature of the e-cigarette market, Sward said.
“Once these companies come under FDA authority, it would require them to register with the FDA to disclose their products and ingredients. That’s really important in understanding how these new products impact public health,” she said.
Given the lack of federal action until now, some states and cities have started pursuing e-cigarette regulations of their own. New York City added e-cigarettes to the city’s overall ban on smoking in December, treating them the same as tobacco products.
Some argue that e-cigarettes can help people quit smoking, but evidence supporting that claim has been mixed. Recent studies published in The Lancet andJAMA Internal Medicine have reported that e-cigarettes either don’t help people quit or are about as effective as a nicotine patch.
SOURCES: Erika Sward, assistant vice president for national advocacy, American Lung Association; Hilary Tindle, M.D., assistant professor of medicine, and director of the tobacco treatment service, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center; April 24, 2014, news conference with Kathleen Sebelius, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary, and Margaret Hamburg, M.D., commissioner, U.S. Food and Drug Administration; April 24, 2014, news release, U.S. Food and Drug Administration
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Thursday approved a human papillomavirus (HPV) test as a first step in cervical cancer screening for women aged 25 and older.
“Today’s approval offers women and physicians a new option for cervical cancer screening,” Alberto Gutierrez, director of the Office of In Vitro Diagnostics and Radiological Health at the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health, said in an agency news release.
HPV, a sexually transmitted virus, is thought to cause the majority of cervical cancers. Certain strains, such as HPV 16 and 18, are most strongly tied to these tumors. The virus also causes genital warts in both men and women and certain head and neck cancers.
Roche Molecular Systems Inc. makes the cobas HPV test. Women who test positive for the two high-risk HPV strains (16 and 18) would then be asked to undergo a colposcopy. This involves using a device that allows a doctor to get a clear view of the vulva, vagina and cervix and take a sample for further testing.
Women who don’t have HPV 16 or 18 but have other high-risk types of the virus would have a Pap test to see if a colposcopy is needed, the FDA said.
One expert welcomed the test’s approval.
Dr. Jill Rabin, head of urogynecology at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New Hyde Park, N.Y., called the FDA approval “quite exciting.”
But she tempered her enthusiasm with “some caveats,” noting that “in many cases an HPV infection may resolve on its own.” Rabin also stressed that “most — but not all — cervical cancers are caused by HPV,” so the test is not foolproof.
The data the FDA reviewed for its decision came from a trial that included more than 47,000 women.
The FDA first approved the cobas HPV test in 2011, to be used with or as a follow-up to a Pap test. Thursday’s approval expands the use of the test as either a “co-test” or as an initial screening test for cervical cancer. But, it doesn’t change current guidelines for cervical cancer screening.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, women should have a Pap test every two years starting at age 21. Women aged 30 and older who’ve had three normal Pap tests in a row can now have one every three years. Women older than 65 may be able to stop having Pap tests, but should discuss the matter first with their doctor.
Typically, an HPV infection clears up on its own and doesn’t lead to health problems. But, about 10 percent of women infected with high-risk HPV develop a persistent infection that may put them at risk of cancer, the FDA said in the news release.
The FDA approval followed a unanimous vote by the agency’s Medical Devices Advisory Committee Microbiology Panel in March that concluded the test was safe and effective as a first-line screen for cervical cancer.
Testifying before that expert panel, Dr. David Chelmow, chair of the department of obstetrics and gynecology at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, said that “cervical cancer screening has been a huge success in decreasing cervical cancer incidence and death.”
Chelmow, representing the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, added that “the college strongly supports further improving cervical cancer screening through the introduction of new paradigms such as HPV testing for primary screening. HPV testing as a primary screening method for cervical cancer is very promising, and appears effective for screening for cervical cancer.”
Dr. Andrew Menzin, a gynecologic oncologist at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, N.Y., told HealthDay that “HPV testing has been a remarkable advance in cervical cancer screening.”
Its greatest value is helping to decide whether a follow-up colposcopy is needed, he said. “The idea of reversing the order of testing is an approach to try to refine and minimize who [unnecessarily] goes on to colposcopy,” he said.
Whether doctors will accept using an HPV test first instead of a Pap test will depend upon the clinical trial data supporting it and on doctors and patients being educated about it, Menzin said.
He noted that current guidelines still favor using the Pap test first, “but the guidelines continue to evolve.”
There are two approved vaccines, Gardasil and Cervarix, that can protect against HPV. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all girls and boys be vaccinated between the ages of 9 and 11.
SOURCES: Jill Rabin, M.D., chief, ambulatory care, obstetrics and gynecology, and head, urogynecology, Long Island Jewish Medical Center, New Hyde Park, N.Y.; David Chelmow, M.D., chair, department of obstetrics and gynecology, Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, Richmond; Andrew Menzin, M.D., gynecologic oncologist, North Shore University Hospital, Manhasset, N.Y.; April, 24, 2014, news release, U.S. Food and Drug Administration